AN: Sorry for the long delay in updating, I had issues with work, family, summer vacation and now school. And other fics. BEA87 is a love and bribed me with fanart for my New Bloodlines fic, starring Shikamaru. Yes, I'm bad and I'm susceptible to bribery. You may yell at me now. BEA has a deviantart profile under the same name, so please check out her work and tell her how wonderful she is, since she really is a wonderful artist. Anyway, here's the next chap, not as good as I'd like but the damned charas were arguing with me! I probably am going to have to do a re-edit later.


Jiraiya leaned onto the balcony outside of the room Sasuke was sleeping in. Only two days had passed since that boy had been recovered and he had healed a little, a very little. His physical injury, his punctured lung, had healed sufficiently within the first day to merit a release so Jiraiya had moved the boys to a hotel. They were waiting for reinforcements from Suna, which Jiraiya had called for. We're going to need some excuse for staying here as long as we have.

Spies were everywhere these days, and the old man had no doubt that someone was suspicious. He'd paid off the medical team that had cared for Sasuke and had informed them of the… consequences of courting Konoha's disappointment. The old man was certain that the doctors would now rather chop off their own hands than anger Konoha.

But there were other people who would notice and might talk about the old white-haired man and his blonde haired apprentice who were caring for a dark haired boy that was the same age as the blonde. Shinobi didn't stay in one place without a damned good reason. Thus, Jiraiya was grateful that Suna could provide one.

The Chuunin exams were going to be held at Konoha again this year, and a representative from Suna needed to go and arrange things. Jiraiya had taken great care to complain loudly at the many pubs he'd gone to earlier about how aggravating political officials were and how irritating it was that he had to wait to escort an ambassador to Konoha. Why couldn't this ambassador have joined him and his students earlier when he left Suna itself? Why couldn't this ambassador get to Konoha his/herself?

The men at the pubs had all been very sympathetic, and had all seemed convinced that Jiraiya was the one doing the favor, instead of Suna granting him a favor by sending out their representative early.

Naruto's influence is playing a part there, Suna couldn't care less about me, but Gaara and his chosen advisors will bend over backward for the boy. Jiraiya smiled sadly, poor Naruto. He was going through ten types of hell himself, what with his dedication in pulling Sasuke out of his personal hell.

Jiraiya's smile faded at the thought of Sasuke; I wasn't kidding when I thought that he hadn't been merely broken, but shattered instead. That first night after the boy's recovery, the Toad-Sage had coaxed Naruto to leave Sasuke and go to the hotel room. Three hours later, a nurse from the hospital had woken them with a message that Sasuke had woken up screaming and couldn't be soothed.

No one had had luck soothing Sasuke, not even Jiraiya. Except that Naruto could. For whatever reason, the dark-haired youth responded poorly to everyone's touch, save Naruto's. Sasuke had accepted that Naruto would never hurt him, but everyone else was suspect.

Thank all gods that he does accept Naruto, or else he'd probably have to stay sedated until this first rush of fear wears itself out. Jiraiya rubbed his face tiredly and glanced over his shoulder. Through the balcony window he could see the two boys laying on one of the beds in the room. Naruto was leaning against some pillows propped against the wall and Sasuke was leaning against the blonde's chest, listening as the blonde read him a book. Both of the brunette's arms were above the blanket and Jiraiya could see the bandages wrapped around the left arm clearly.

He said he needed to punish himself when he cut himself. He had to punish himself. Jiraiya had heard of people who had been abused for so long that they felt that they deserved it, but he hadn't encountered any before. I can't help but wonder if this particular behavior had started before Orochimaru.

Naruto had explained that Sasuke had always had arm wraps of some kind for as long as the blonde could remember, and there were old scars next to the fresh wound, and a few old scars on the other arm as well, so it was possible. But Sasuke wasn't talking. Thankfully, he had agreed to stop cutting himself after Naruto begged him not to.

And that concerns me a little as well, how quickly and readily Sasuke bows to whatever Naruto wants. I think right now, he's looking for someone to order him and guide him, that he feels that he no longer can think for himself. But that didn't make complete sense. Jiraiya gnawed on his thumb lightly while he puzzled over the evidence.

The Eagle Clan is one of the few Shikigami Clans that can be bargained with, and you must, absolutely must have a strong will when dealing with them. They don't work with just anyone, and if they decide that you no longer deserve their aid, they will abandon you. So why is that little falcon still here, acting as Sasuke's eyes, unless there's something there that they still value?

Jiraiya didn't have much personal experience with the Shikigami Clans, and he didn't think that Kintchy would tell him any juicy details, so the only conclusion he could come to was that he didn't have enough information for anything other than speculation. Although, that damned bird does seem to be genuinely fond of Sasuke, and Naruto. She'll often go pester that blonde brat just so she can get a good head scratch. And the falcon wasn't the only one either, Sasuke had a grey owl ally for night, and that fellow liked to be cuddled (1), let alone scratched.

But only by Sasuke and Naruto, neither bird likes anyone else to come near, although they both will tolerate me. That has to mean something; if Sasuke takes orders and bows his will to someone the Clan approves of, it's okay? Jiraiya didn't know.

Still, worrisome as it was that Sasuke bowed to and obeyed Naruto without question, right now it was useful. The blonde only had good intentions for the broken boy, and when the former missing-nin was sleeping, the blonde would pester his master for advice and reassurance. It may just be that we've been granted something of a short-cut here. If Naru-baka tells Sasuke to do or not do something, he will or wouldn't do it for so long that it'll become ingrained behavior. This way, when his heart heals more, the normal behavior patterns will already be there and all he has to do is accept that it's right.

Jiraiya grimaced at another thought, right, ideally it'll work that way, but more likely it'll backfire. These behaviors are letting us know that something's wrong. Cutting himself, for example, is letting us know that he feels he needs to be punished if he ever 'indulges' himself, like accepting Naruto's care. His obedience to Naruto is symptom of something else, but what? He exhibits typical man-fear to everyone but Naruto and children under eight, and human-fear to just about everyone else. So why is Naruto special?

This one was a harder puzzle, what could possibly be unique about Naruto that Sasuke felt that the blonde was safe? Or is it not just Naruto, but that he knows Naruto and we haven't yet encountered anyone else he knows like that? That theory made sense, but he'd have to wait another few days to test it. Their assistance from Suna that gave them probable cause for the delay would come tomorrow or the next day, and then it was another five days or so at normal traveling speed to get to Konoha. They'd probably have to go slower to accommodate Sasuke's current physical weakness.

No, we'll have to go slower and keep our eyes sharp for any signs of pain or fatigue, for as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow, he won't utter a peep of complaint; he won't dare to for fear of punishment. He sighed; screaming nightmares, fear of any and all touch, an insistence for punishment and a slavish emotional dependence on an old school friend and teammate; the boy was a wreck. And this is only the end of the second day! What else is going to crop up?

The sun was rising slowly, Sasuke felt it by the way the tree outside their room was responding, growing more active. Plants were harder to read than animals, but with big complex things like trees it was possible. But the coming dawn wasn't what woke the blind boy. There's someone in the room.

He didn't move, didn't so much as twitch. He certainly didn't need to open his eyes. Sasuke merely analyzed the foreign presence, it didn't feel hostile. Or rather, she doesn't feel hostile. He wondered if he should wake Naruto, it would be easy to do so without giving an obvious sign. After all, Sasuke's pillow at the moment was the blonde's chest.

Naruto had slept cradling Sasuke ever since the brunette had woken up from a screaming nightmare in the presence of strangers. Simply having the blonde nearby was reassuring enough during the day, but not enough at night, when the feel of the Sound crept closer. He'd sleep, only to wake screaming in nameless fear. If Naruto was with him, most of the fear was kept at bay. Naruto hadn't been at Sound, obviously, so when Sasuke's subconscious sensed the blonde, it came to the logical conclusion that he was safely away from that place.

But this strange person, Sasuke didn't know her. She could be from that place so it would really be a good idea to wake Naruto. He'd protect the blind boy without a second thought. Except, he didn't need to wake Naruto, he was already awake. The blonde shinobi lightly squeezed Sasuke and turned a little as if he were still asleep. What he was really doing was grabbing the hand-and-a-half dagger he kept under his pillow. Sasuke shifted as well, moving off of the blonde in case he had to lunge.

"So how long are you going to lay there pretending to be asleep?" The strange woman said with irritation.

"Temari?" Naruto yelped, sitting up, "Dear gods, make some noise next time. You nearly ate six inches of steel!" That wasn't a bluff, and both of the other two knew it. Naruto had gotten a lot stronger.

"Well, normally I would have, but you and your friend there were looking so cute snuggled together like that, that I just couldn't bring myself to wake you." She said in mock-schoolgirl tones. Sasuke felt his face burn, and from the way Naruto was sputtering, he was probably blushing just as brightly.

"'Mari!" Naruto protested, "We weren't cuddling! Honest, I swear!"

"Uh-huh, right, sure you weren't. And all the photos I just got will prove just that."

"Nice camera you've got there." Kintchy remarked dryly, apparently awake now. She fluttered down from the foot board onto Sasuke's lap, who was sitting up now as well in spite of his desire to hide beneath the covers.

"Thank you," Temari said, apparently unfazed by the talking falcon.

"Ack! No! Gimme that camera!" Naruto cried out, lunging out of bed and chasing after Temari, who was laughing lightly at Naruto's actions. Temari… plus teasing, plus laughing… equals… The mental image of this person who was now playing keep-away with the blonde did not match up with the other mental image Sasuke had of the cold, indifferent person who disclaimed responsibility for Kankuro's bullying. What's going on here?!?

"What's going on here?" Jiraiya growled from the bedroom doorway, "Can't a guy get a decent nights sleep around here?"

"Since when have you been decent?" Naruto declared, then eeped, "And what the heck happened with your hair? Did you get attacked by rabid, hyper squirrels or something?" Sasuke overheard Temari make a stifled distressed sound and felt Kintchy bury her head under his arm, and was suddenly glad that he couldn't see.

"I just have bed-head, you brat! You say this like you've never had it as well." Jiraiya yelled back.

"I never get bed-head! I always let the pillow do my hair." Naruto declared smugly, "That way I never have to worry about getting embarrassed and it saves time."

"Gee, that explains a lot." Temari drawled.

"Hey, whose side are you on 'Mari?" Naruto yelped, yet again.

"Ha, well said, young lady!" Jiraiya laughed at the same time the blonde yelped.

I wonder if it's possible to disown acquaintances, Sasuke thought, I don't want to know these people.

"You got here sooner than I had thought, Temari-chan." Jiraiya said.

"Eh, well, it's not that far, and you did send the message via eagle, so it got there quickly." the Kunoichi said calmly, "Oh and don't try any of your cheap flirtation tricks this time, and go brush you hair. You're going to traumatize some innocent child with it."

"Temari-chan you're so cruel," the old man mock-sobbed, "Why must you be so cruel to a poor old man? You must have been associating with the gaki too long."

"Oi!" "Humph!"

Oh, please, dear gods, please make it possible to disown any and all acquaintances, I really don't want to be associated with these maniacs!

"Ah, Sasuke-kun, you're awake!" Jiraiya said jovially, "You were so quiet, I wondered if you might still be asleep in spite of all the mayhem." Naruto protested that Jiraiya was to worst for mayhem, but was ignored, "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Well," Sasuke said, tensing despite his knowledge that Jiraiya had no reason to hurt him and that Naruto wouldn't let him anyway.

"Good, I'm glad, especially since we're going to be heading off for Konoha today." The old man said, moving off back to his room.

What!?!?! Going back to Konoha? I can't, I can't go back!

Gods, I hate mornings, Naruto thought as he stretched and yawned. "I'm going to get some breakfast, Temari, wanna come with?"

"Sure, that way I can get real food and not instant ramen." She replied.

"Hey, I don't have instant ramen for breakfast- often." the blonde protested. "Sasuke, I'll be right back. Anything you want in particular?"

Sasuke just shook his head and made a vague negative noise. He was sitting on the bed, hugging his knees, and looking down. Uh-oh. Naruto reached over and rubbed his shoulder gently.

"Hey, you alright?" The blonde murmured softly, too quiet for the Suna Kunoichi to hear.

"Hai…" Sasuke lied.

"Right," Naruto growled softly, "I'm gonna go get breakfast and then I'll ditch 'Mari by sicing Ero-Sennin on her so we can talk, okay?"

Sasuke nodded, face still down-turned. The blonde squeezed his shoulder gently.

"Okay, I'll be right back, alright?" Sasuke nodded again, and Naruto turned to leave with the only slightly patient Temari. Once they exited the room and closed the door, she pounced.

"I want to know what precisely is going on and who that is," she jerked her head back to the bedroom door, "and I want to know now."

Naruto blew out a sigh, "Right, uh, first, you remember Sasuke, right?"

Temari blinked at him, "That was Sasuke, Uchiha Sasuke?"

"Is there more than one?"

"Kami-sama… He looked so, so…"

"Broken? He is and that's part of the reason Ero-Sennin asked for help, and I'm glad it's you." Naruto gave a lop-sided grin.

"Ha, Gaara knows better than to just send anyone to bail you out, too many still see you as just the Kyuubi vessel." She grimaced, why couldn't those idiots see the bright-eyed sweet-heart that Naruto really was?

"Well, whatever, I'm still glad you're here. But back to my in-depth explanation. Couple, three days ago, a damned big bird called out and asked for help and Sasuke dropped in on us, almost literally." Naruto paused to let the terrified emotions that still washed over him at the memory to pass. "He was hurtin' bad, broken ribs, punctured lung and really looked like death warmed over. Sasuke had just escaped from that Orochimaru bastard and well…" The blonde shinobi looked back over his shoulder down the hallway, a sad expression on his face. "It's not just his body that was hurting." That was all he said.

"He's the one that my brothers and I tried to help stop from leaving, correct?" The ash-blonde Kunoichi asked as the reached the stairs heading down.

"Uh-huh, I failed, and Sasuke paid the price." The gold-blonde shinobi said bitterly, eyes downcast.

"He left of his own will and you did you're best to stop him, with whatever means you could." Temari stated firmly, "I know you by now, and I know that it's impossible for you to do any less." They paused, and Temari reached out to level Naruto's face with hers. "Whatever happened, you did your best. Sasuke's the one that chose to leave; he's the one who brought what happened down on his own head."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest, but Temari lifted a finger to stop him, "I don't believe that he deserved to be hurt as badly as he has been, nor do I believe that he still deserves to pay for his mistake. He's paid and then some. But you have to admit that he asked for something, after making so bad a mistake as to go to Orochimaru of all people"

"Yeah, well…" Naruto shuffled his feet a little, then headed down the stairs to the cafeteria. "I think he paid three times over when the Snake-Bastard ordered Kabuto" the name was growled hatefully, "to take away his sight."

Temari had been three steps behind Naruto, but stopped dead when she heard that, "What?"

Ow, my ears, "Kabuto sealed away Sasuke's eyesight, couldn't you tell he's blind?"

"No…" Temari said in a dazed tone, "His eyes are clear, and he was looking around…"

"Well, he's got this chakra sensing thing going, so he can tell where people are kinda. Or so he says. He says it's like if you hold your hands out, you can tell where the fire is by the heat, and the closer you are, the better you can tell exactly…" Naruto shrugged sheepishly, "I kinda get the feeling it's hard for him to describe, like explaining song to a deaf guy or-"

"Or color to a blind person?" Temari finished when her friend cut off. The other blonde grinned in embarrassment and rubbed the back of his head, then they continued down the stairs.

"Yeah, well, um, Sasuke's dealing with being blind pretty well, I think. I mean, he figured out how to use his chakra sense and he's got Kintchy to be his eye's for him."


"The falcon?"

"Ah. Oh! So that's where the talking eagle that brought the note came from. He was really quite insulting."

"That was… Grats, I think. Sasuke said that that guy's like that, especially if he's asked to do something that's 'beneath him'." They had reached the cafeteria and Naruto grabbed a tray and started filling it with pastries, sausages and fruit. The pastries and sausages outnumbered the fruit three to one, Temari noted with a smile.

"I hope Sasuke likes sugar and meat." She remarked idly. Naruto grinned.

"Who do you think the fruit's for?"

Sasuke sat up on the bed, knees hugged tight to his chest, face buried, rocking with despair. I can't go back, I can't go back, I can't go back… he chanted silently.

"Sasuke-kun?" Kintchy asked quietly, trying to wedge her beak under her ally's right arm, "Sasuke-kun, what's wrong? Please, you know you can talk to me."

The blind boy raised his head a little, "Remember… when I left Sound, there were two places I said I couldn't go back too?"

"Yes, you didn't want to go back to that place, or Konoha." She said, "But Jiraiya-sama and Naruto-kun are both from Konoha, so they can vouch for you can't they? I mean, Naruto's so kind and protective…"

"And forgiving." Sasuke finished, "But that's what I'm afraid of, being hated. There are so many people there, at Konoha, that I betrayed. People that are important to me. I afraid that Naruto will be the only one to forgive me… But more, I…"

"But what?" Kintchy prompted. Sasuke moaned and buried his head in his knees more firmly. "Sasuke-kun?"

"They'll want to know! They'll want to know what happened, what I did! They'll want me to talk about that place and Him, and he'll know and He'll be mad! He'll be mad at me and then- and then-!"

Sasuke's senses were suddenly overwhelmed by Naruto's presence and he felt himself getting pulled into one of those gentle, protective embraces. Gods it was so warm…

"Hush… hush…" Naruto crooned, holding and rocking him, "You're safe now, you're free. You can say whatever you want, or not say whatever and it'll be okay. You're safe, you're safe."

Sasuke turned and buried his face against Naruto's chest, trying to block out everything else. Distantly he could sense that other person, Temari, but he didn't really care. Naruto, the center of his universe, was here now, that was all that mattered.

Naruto would never hurt him, or allow him to be hurt. As long as his protector was there, Sasuke would be safe. He knew it.

"Uh, 'Mari?" Naruto asked over his shoulder, "Could you- uh- maybe you should- um, talk to Ero-senin about what he's planning on doing?"

"Naru-baka, you really need to work on your lying." Was the young woman's response, "But I'll leave you two alone."

"Arigatou and gomen." The blonde boy said, while Sasuke lay conflicted in his arms. How dare that woman criticize Naruto in any fashion? Even if she did have a point, that excuse was really pathetic.

"Sasuke, what's wrong?" The blonde youth finally asked the dreaded question. Sasuke buried himself a little deeper into Naruto's arms. "C'mon Sasuke, talk to me, please? Maybe I can help?"

You can't help, no one can. When we go back to Konoha, everyone will hate me. I know they will. And then, when He comes for me, they'll just let Him take me and not even you can stop him and- It didn't take long for Sasuke to work himself into a full panic attack. He lay there, clinging to Naruto's shirt, gasping in anticipated horror while the blonde stroked his back, murmuring reassurances and begging to know what was wrong.

All Sasuke could do was whimper in fear. Fortunately, kind of, he also whimpered out words; "Can't go back, can't go back, can't go back-"

Suddenly Sasuke felt Naruto grab his arms in a tight grip and found himself shaken roughly.

"Sasuke! Snap out of it!" The blonde snapped. The dark-haired boy gaped, hanging limply in shock, "No one is going to hurt you, I promise! I won't let anything happen to you, I swear! Now please, just talk to me. What's wrong?"

"They'll hate me. They'll betray me like I did them. I know it. They'll hate and He'll come for me and they'll just let Him take me and-" Sasuke was shaken again before he had a chance to work himself up too much.

"No they won't, not Sakura-chan, not Kakashi-sensei, I promise." Naruto said, pulling Sasuke into a tight embrace again. "Sakura-chan misses you so much, I can tell. She writes me sometimes, and half the time she just talks about missions we would go on, and half the time she avoids mentioning you at all like it's too painful. She'll be overjoyed to see you again. And Kakashi-sensei, he'll be happy too. From what Ero-senin says, Kakashi-sensei blames himself for what happened. He'll be happy to see you, and you can be sure he won't let anything happen, promise!"

"But how can you be sure?" Sasuke demanded in anguish, "When they see me, when they see how filthy and tainted I am-"

"You are not tainted!" Naruto stated firmly, giving Sasuke another shake. "If you were you wouldn't be hurting. Ero-senin says so. Only people who are tainted could go through what you did and not come out hurting."

Sasuke mutely shook his head and curled in on himself, pulling away from what Naruto was saying. The blonde pulled him close and stroked his hair.

"C'mon Sasuke, why can't you believe it, why can't you believe that your clean, that you haven't become tainted?" Naruto murmured into the dark hair, "I think you're clean, no, I know you are. You couldn't be hurting like this if you weren't, I believe that. Why can't you?"

Sasuke didn't answer this time, only let himself be cradled and petted. He knew that in this, Naruto was wrong, but he didn't want to fight about it again. He couldn't bear to upset Naruto over anything, even if the blonde was wrong. So he just stayed silent and let the other youth believe what he wanted to. Naruto would anyway.

(1) Grey owls are exceedingly social creatures, to the point where they will groom the hair of researchers even if they've been caught in the wild (saw that on a nature program)

A.S.: #glares at chapter# I hate you, I hate you, so much…. Why couldn't you just do what I wanted? Instead you had to argue with me ever single step! Arg!!!!

Naruto: There now, take it easy, the next one will work out right? You can just scene skip- eeep! Put down the knife! Help!